Major food adulteration and contamination events seem to occur with some regularity, such as the widely publicised adulteration of milk products with melamine and the recent microbial contamination of vegetables across Europe for example. With globalisation and rapid distribution systems, these can have international impacts with far-reaching and sometimes lethal consequences. These events, though potentially global in the modern era, are in fact far from contemporary, and deliberate adulteration of food products is probably as old as the food processing and production systems themselves. This review first introduces some background into these practices, both historically and contemporary, before introducing a range of the technologies currently available for the detection of food adulteration and contamination. These methods include the vibrational spectroscopies: near-infrared, mid-infrared, Raman; NMR spectroscopy, as well as a range of mass spectrometry (MS) techniques, amongst others. This subject area is particularly relevant at this time, as it not only concerns the continuous engagement with food adulterers, but also more recent issues such as food security, bioterrorism and climate change. It is hoped that this introductory overview acts as a springboard for researchers in science, technology, engineering, and industry, in this era of systems-level thinking and interdisciplinary approaches to new and contemporary problems. © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2012.